In June, Tove Lo thought she had finally crossed over. The Swedish pop songwriter's debut EP, Truth Serum, had gone Top 20 in her home country, and its best track, the Kendrick Lamar-esque "Habits (Stay High)," could occasionally be heard on U.S. radio. Four month later, "Habits" keeps getting bigger – radio won't leave it alone – and her debut full-length, Queen of the Clouds, is coming up right behind it. Shortly before the record's September release, Tove discussed the transition from songwriter to solo artist, her self-destructive tendencies and what she's learned from Swedish pop maestro Max Martin.
In America, people are obsessed with the concept of Swedish pop but often don't know much about what is actually happening in Stockholm. What is the music scene like there?
It differs. You have a big group of "pop girls," the kind of artist who also writes for herself, that has a bit of an electronic edge. I'm always in that group, and there are so many talented ones. We also have our boy bands. And people know us because we have guys like Max Martin, and they write for such big names and they're always on top of the charts.
Have you worked with Martin before?
I'm part of his songwriting team – a group that him and Shellback have signed called Wolf Cousins. It's six different producers and me as the top-line writer. So maybe Martin and Shellback will write a song and produce it together with one of these new young writers, which obviously gives us a huge chance to be on a bigger project that we would never get a chance to be on otherwise. And it's also kind of like mentoring: We're all sitting together in this big studio complex in Stockholm, which is awesome, and they're just working their asses off. That's pretty recent – it just started end of last year.
It's cool to see, because you understand why he's so successful. When you're writing a song, it's easy sometimes to settle, but I've never seen him do that in that way. I love writing, though now I haven't been doing it because I've been just playing and doing press. But it's best to be in the studio.
In the last few years you've released singles called "Habits (Stay High)" and "Not on Drugs." What about the drug metaphor appeals to you as a songwriter?
I write about what I know and my way of dealing with things, good or bad. And I think no matter what your drug is, if it's weed or alcohol or just adrenaline in general, it's whatever gives you the ultimate high. I like to compare things to that because that's what everyone's always chasing, at least I'm that way. I can't live just being content. I can't have a routine. I can't be settled because then I just get really frustrated. I need to get these rushes. I'm pretty much chasing rushes.
I just like to talk about drugs in my songs because obviously a lot of people know what I'm talking about: It's not a secret. I can tell that everyone knows what I mean when I say these things.
But then, you know, you have all the other reasons for why I shouldn't. Because if I sing about it in a positive way, I'm no longer just only sitting in my studio. People are starting to know who I am, and young kids will listen and feel inspired – either to not to do it because they'll see the "Habits" video and just say "Fuck, that looks awful," or be like "That's so me; I want to be that self-destructive person." Which is kind of how I was when I was growing up. I was always drawn to the self-destructive kind of way. I thought there was something beautiful about it, I don't know why. But yeah, I don't know if I should take a stand or not. Right now I'm just writing what I know.
Is it weird making that transition, where people now hear the songs you write and try to learn something about you from them?
I didn't just want to give these songs away because they were too personal, but I haven't really thought of the difference of coming out and suddenly being the face of your own thing – it's hard. I don't think I ever will understand how much people will have the energy to have opinions and feelings about me as a person, depending on the stuff that I release and decide to give up to the public. It will never be enough to just to be like, "Here's the music. I'm performing live. That's it." People are always gonna want more and know more and get more from me as a person.
But I get it too, I love reading all these personal interviews about an artist whose music you love because you want to know the back story. I think it's because if you relate so personally to the music you want to relate to the person too. It's been a big change that's taken me a while to accept. Especially when it comes to the appearance of me – like, how I look and what I wear and my make-up and my hair and everything. It's suddenly just because I'm a pop girl that's very important. It means a lot to everyone around me that I look good, and I don't think it should have to. I just think I should look the way I do. [laughs]
So as you were becoming more famous, more of a "pop girl," what were you trying to do with Queen of the Clouds?
When I wrote for this album I was like, "I'm still just gonna keep it very personal, like all the lyrics are mine and it's just kind of my story." But it's surreal, everything that's happening right now. I wouldn't have minded having an indie career. But now that it's kind of taking off you're watching your actual teenage dream coming true, slowly but surely. So the album is raw and personal. It's my kind of dance-y pop but with that little bit of pain in there, a bit of darkness.
I've divided the record into three parts: "The Sex," "the Love" and "the Pain," which is basically the way that all my relationships usually start and end – I realized that looking at it [laughs]. But yeah, it's got maybe a bit more of the happier side of me as well, which I feel good about. I want it to just feel emotional and big, but still have that kind of quirky pop to it. It's the mix of the organic and electronic beats – it's messy. I feel like it's messy and it's raw and it's honest, and I'm really proud of it, actually. I feel very good about it.